Three months ago, the Seahawks sent shockwaves throughout the NFL by executing a blockbuster trade with the Chiefs, receiving a first and second-round pick in exchange for rising star Frank Clark.
Unwilling to pay north of $20 million per year to retain the 26-year old Clark despite his impressive production from last season, general manager John Schneider used the acquired capital to eventually transform a league-low four picks into 11 selections in the 2019 NFL Draft.
With optimism trickling from the top down throughout the organization, the Seahawks intend to build off of a surprising 10-win campaign and take the next step towards returning to contention for an NFC Championship. Bolstering an already young, promising core with an incoming draft class that Schneider and coach Pete Carroll seem extra enthused about has only increased those expectations with training camp set to open next week.
This doesn’t mean the Seahawks don’t have questions marks, however. There’s no shortage of concerns, including how Seattle will proceed into the future on offense without the services of retired receiver Doug Baldwin and most importantly, how the team will generate a pass rush minus Clark.
Seattle already lacked depth in the pass rushing department with Clark on the roster last season, as there was a substantial drop off in production away from him and defensive tackle Jarran Reed, who registered 13.0 and 10.5 sacks respectively. The rest of the team combined to produce 19.5 sacks, with defensive ends Quinton Jefferson and Jacob Martin tied for third on the team with 3.0 sacks apiece.
By trading Clark, the Seahawks further exacerbated one of the team’s most glaring weaknesses, dealing away nearly a third of their sacks from a year ago. According to Pro Football Focus, he also produced 24.6 percent of the team’s total pressures, a statistic that becomes even more startling considering Seattle was credited with creating pressure on just 31.4 percent of total drop backs by opponents.
But before media pundits and fans hit the panic button, a reflection on past seasons may ease some of the anxiety about the team’s ability to overcome his departure.
Since Carroll’s arrival in 2010, he and his staff have specialized in manufacturing a quality pass rush out of a hodgepodge of affordable veterans, castoffs, and rookies.
In his first year, Carroll sent a fourth-round pick to Philadelphia for veteran Chris Clemons, who had produced 20.0 sacks in five prior seasons while playing with three different teams. Over the next three years, he recorded at least 11.0 sacks each season to boost Seattle’s pass rush.
Clemons wasn’t the only player to arrive in the Pacific Northwest and see his production skyrocket in Carroll’s defense.
32-year old Raheem Brock, who hadn’t produced more than 3.5 sacks in a season since 2005, found the fountain of youth in a reserve role and posted 9.0 sacks for the ‘Hawks in 2010. When Michael Bennett returned as a free agent in 2013, he surpassed 8.0 sacks three times over the next five years.
As Bennett and Cliff Avril emerged as long-time starters, Carroll continued to find surprising contributors to help pitch in as pass rushers.
In 2013, it was defensive tackle Clinton McDonald, who racked up 5.5 sacks and 14 quarterback hits. In 2014, third-round pick Jordan Hill came out of nowhere to produce 5.5 sacks. Most recently, Dion Jordan returned from a long hiatus and yielded 4.0 sacks in just five games to close out the 2017 season.
None of those players lasted more than a few years in Seattle, but even last year, Carroll, “new” defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr., and defensive line coach Clint Hurtt kept successfully patching up holes with duct tape.
After missing the playoffs for the first time in six years, the Seahawks were trying to replace an injured Avril as well as Bennett and one-year rental Sheldon Richardson, who Pro Football Focus credited with a combined 106 pressures in 2017. Aside from Clark, there simply wasn’t another proven pass rushing presence on the roster.
Yet, according to Football Outsiders, Seattle actually managed to increase its adjusted sack percentage by a full percentage point in 2018. Based on this metric, the Seahawks produced more sacks per pass attempt with adjustments made for down, distance, and opponent.
If you’re into more traditional stats, they increased their sack total as a team by five compared to the season prior, getting home to bring opposing quarterbacks down more frequently even if total pressures declined.
Clark played a significant role in those improvements, but he wasn’t alone picking up the slack. Nobody could have projected Reed would evolve from a two-down run stuffer into an elite pass rushing defensive tackle. Few could have anticipated Jefferson would contribute 15 quarterback hits while playing multiple spots along the line.
Adding more teeth to the pass rush in the second half, Martin burst onto the scene in a situational role and provided all three of his sacks during the final seven regular season games, providing a glimpse of hope that he can become much more in his second year in the league.
The uncertainty surrounding Seattle’s pass rush is warranted, especially with free agent signee Ezekiel Ansah still working his way back to full health from offseason shoulder surgery and far from guaranteed to return to his former double-digit sack-producing self. Even with Reed coming back and betting on himself going into a contract year, there’s a shortage of experienced rushers alongside him, a situation that always lends itself to skepticism.
With such a large piece of the puzzle gone, Carroll and his staff will be asking a lot out of first-round pick L.J. Collier, Jefferson, Martin, Rasheem Green, journeyman Cassius Marsh, and potentially the duo of Barkevious Mingo and Shaquem Griffin to help bridge the production gap created by Clark's absence.
But if there’s anyone who can develop a competent pass rush using a by-committee approach with all hands on deck, the Seahawks have already proven on multiple occasions that they’re more than capable, which should inspire plenty of confidence within the fan base heading towards the 2019 season.